Polls, say many a political consultant with axiomatic confidence, are rarely wrong but are often misread. At the risk of proving this saying right yet again, I submit that I read the poll on New York's Senate race, published last Thursday in the Times, this way:
Results showed Chuck Schumer ahead of Al D'Amato among registered voters by 44 to 41 percent. They further showed Schumer holding a four-point lead, 47 to 43, when the field of respondents was narrowed to likely voters. What these two sets of numbers suggest is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, low turnout may actually favor Democrats.
We'll get back to why in a minute. But first, some general assertions. If Vince Lombardi had been a political consultant, he would have said that turnout isn't everything, it's the only thing. Especially in an election like this one, in which maybe one third of registered voters will participate, and in which two of the four statewide races -- U.S. senator and state attorney general -- could be decided by a mere tens of thousands of votes (out of roughly 4 million cast). The side that gets its people to the polls is the side that will win.
Now, back to the Senate race. It's generally true that low-turnout races favor the Republican Party. The GOP base vote is somewhat more middle-class, with a higher average income and whatnot, and therefore likelier to vote than the more working-class Democratic-base voters. You may recall that in 1994, when the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives, they did so on the strength of one of the lowest midterm-election votes in modern history, 38.7 percent.
Most people think that will be the case in 1998 as well. Certainly almost all the national conversation about the midterm elections has assumed it: that House Republicans have moved ahead with the impeachment vote to keep their base jacked up, while the Democratic-base voters, especially blacks and Hispanics, have no pressing reason to go to the polls.
If that were the case in New York, though, it would seem that, once the Times poll reduced its sample to likely voters, D'Amato's numbers would have shot up. But Schumer's lead held steady; likely voters are just as Democratic, in other words, as registered voters.
"What I'm seeing across the country and in New York," says Jefrey Pollock, a pollster with Global Strategy Group, Inc., "is that the one group of voters least likely to turn out is independent voters. Without allegiance to either side" -- to Schumer or D'Amato, or to Bill Clinton or Ken Starr -- "they tend to be totally disgusted with both sides." In recent elections, independents have favored Republicans; they've always helped D'Amato win, and they were crucial in helping George Pataki beat Mario Cuomo in 1994. So if independents don't vote in their usual numbers, this, too, favors Democrats, and Schumer.
Turnout comes down to the question of which side is doing what to prod its sure-thing voters to the polls. The GOP is preparing a big get-out-the-vote effort upstate, where it's obviously strongest. It'll need to, because upstate voters, anxious to dump Cuomo in '94, came out in very large numbers for Pataki then. This year, with Pataki seemingly assured of victory against Peter Vallone, the upstate vote will be lower unless Republicans work hard to bring it out.
The Democrats are aiming for a high urban turnout, of course, in New York City and to some extent in the state's other large cities. Will it work for them? Keep your eye on three factors.
- The Working Families Party. This is a liberal-left effort led by some unions and activist groups to revive the left wing of the Democratic Party. Usually, these efforts dissolve in righteous failure because the nominee is some noble loser who can't muster any more votes than I could. But the Working Families people were much smarter about it. They nominated Vallone as their candidate, meaning Vallone will appear on their ballot line as well as on the Democratic line. And even though Vallone will probably lose to Pataki, he did win the primary, and he will receive more than a million votes. The Working Families Party needs Vallone to get just 50,000 votes on its line to become a real, legally recognized political party, and so the unions involved in this movement are working harder than usual to get their rank and file to the polls. If they do their job, they'll bring at least a few thousand liberals to the polls who probably wouldn't have bothered otherwise.
- The Liberal Party. The real agenda of the Working Families Party is to liquidate the Liberal Party and its boss, Ray Harding, because of Harding's support for the not terribly liberal Giuliani. Harding, you'll recall, is supporting Betsy McCaughey Ross, whose Dadaist campaign has left Ray more worried than ever about getting his 50,000 votes. Harding says the Libs are working on a targeted get-out-the-vote drive. Despite Betsy, he'll probably get his 50,000 -- by the way, he says he believes the Working Families Party will as well -- and more Liberal votes for Betsy might mean more votes for Schumer, who also has the Liberal line.
- Carl McCall's campaign. The real key. McCall, the incumbent comptroller, is the only black candidate running and so represents the most obvious reason for black voters to come out. His Republican opponent, Bruce Blakeman, is nowhere to be seen, though, and so if black voters feel McCall isn't threatened, they might not vote (this, needless to say, is how the state GOP, poor Blakeman aside, wants them to feel). Campaign manager Ed O'Malley says he's hoping for 50,000 more black votes than in 1994 and insists that the McCall campaign is working furiously to make it happen. "Everybody accepts that if turnout among Democrats can be driven up," O'Malley says, "it's Carl who's going to do it. And it can lift them all up."
A pro-Clinton statement from D'Amato worries the Schumer camp, because it would give Alfonse bipartisan appeal to voters in the middle. But then D'Amato risks offending his base. How he plays it will depend on his assessment of who's voting. As Lombardi (would have) said, turnout is the only thing.